Season in preview: Center field

El Caballo Loco…

The center fielders in April: Angel Pagan, Scott Hairston

Overview: Pretty sure Angel Pagan finally shook that incessant “fourth outfielder” label last season. He did it in the best way, too: By earning a starting job with exceptional play and avoiding the type of rare but memorable calamities that earned him an undeserved reputation for having a low baseball IQ.

By WAR, Pagan was the fifth-best center fielder in baseball in 2010. He plays exceptional defense, covering Citi Field’s outfield expanses. He can work an at-bat and draw a walk when he’s not getting anything to hit. He can drive the ball a bit. He burns up the basepaths. Though aesthetically dissimilar and not as powerful a hitter, Pagan excels in all phases of the game like his mentor Carlos Beltran did in his heyday. And he is thrilling to watch.

Pagan has also been tabbed as injury-prone, but few of his injuries have been related and at least one was of the freak variety: His shoulder-contusing in LA in 2008. Pagan is 29 and coming off a season and a half of being a really good player. There’s no reason to think he’ll be anything but that in 2011.

Scott Hairston should fill in when Pagan’s not playing, but ideally that won’t happen too often. Hairston’s bat plays pretty well in center, but he cannot field or get on base as well as Pagan. As I’ve mentioned before, people seem to think that Willie Harris is on the team to back up center field, but Hairston has more experience (and more recent experience) in the spot.

The center fielders in September: Pagan, Hairston.

How they stack up: The Braves have Nate McLouth in center field coming off a year in which he posted a .190/.298/.322 line. The Marlins will move converted infielder Chris Coghlan to center even though he was not a particularly great left fielder last year. He should hit well for the position, but his defense could be, well, typical of the Marlins. The Nationals seem to be unironically starting Rick Ankiel in center. The only player in the division that might be a match for Pagan is Shane Victorino, and I am not inclined to say anything nice about Shane Victorino in this space. Plus Pagan’s probably better anyway.

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